It's A Chocola vs Rove Death Match In The Battle For What's Left Of The Republican Party
Chris Chocola is less well known outside of fringy far right circles. A former currency trader in his family's firm, he's the multimillionaire head of the anti-tax extremist group Club for Growth. He was a two term congressman best known for his opposition to Internet gambling and for his demented jihad against Laurie Anderson, NASA's artist-in-residence. He's moved on from attacking avant-garde artists to attacking mainstream conservatives. This week the NY Times reported on his onslaught against Illinois Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, a close ally of Boehner and Cantor and the love interest of GOP closet case Aaron Schock, another Republican the homophobic Chocola detests. In Chocola's deranged mind Kinzinger is almost a liberal and deserves a Club For Growth-funded primary opponent. Chocola is trying to paint himself as the "principled" (and radical) alternative to Rove.
“I have always been concerned with the Club for Growth’s mission,” said Rich Galen, a Republican commentator and former aide to Newt Gingrich and Dan Quayle. “As someone who came to Washington after Watergate when the House G.O.P. could meet in a phone booth, I have always felt it is too hard to elect our folks to put them at risk in primaries.”
To be a broad-based majority party, Mr. Galen said, “you have to accept that the edges will get farther and farther apart and you have to accept that one edge will not agree on all items with the other edge-- but they will agree more with that other edge than they would with Democrats.” To Mr. Chocola, that kind of attitude is exactly the problem.
“I can’t go to the Capitol Hill Club anymore,” he said, referring to the hangout for House Republicans. “But we have a $16 trillion debt because politicians worry about being popular rather than providing the leadership to do the hard things.”
Mr. Chocola’s argument is that the path to success for Republicans is to embrace sharp ideological differences with Democrats rather than sanding them down, even in states and districts that do not inherently lean conservative. As models, he points to Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Republicans who won their seats in 2010 in states that President Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012.
In an interview, Mr. Chocola dismissed the idea that Club for Growth and other conservative groups were responsible for losses in Senate races last year in Missouri and Indiana, where the Republican candidates, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, both collapsed after making statements about rape. His group had backed Mr. Mourdock but not Mr. Akin.
“Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin lost because they said stupid things,” said Mr. Chocola, a former Republican member of the House.
“The real question is Heather Wilson, Tommy Thompson, George Allen, Denny Rehberg-- why did they all lose?” Mr. Chocola said, referring to Republican candidates for Senate in 2012 in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Virginia and Montana. “If you have these kinds of establishment-backed Republican candidates who lost, in some cases in states where Romney won, that’s a more interesting question and one that ought to be the focus of the party. I think the answer is that you just need candidates who are willing to articulate a clear, convincing, conservative economic message and aren’t afraid of what Republicans are supposed to stand for.”
Mr. Chocola said he did not see the Club for Growth being in a fight for the soul of the party with Mr. Rove’s group. “But if they want to create a Republican primary establishment-versus-conservative battle, the conservative’s going to win,” he said.
It is not clear how aggressive the Club for Growth will be in fielding conservative challenges to Republican incumbents this year. Mr. Chocola said the group prefers to back candidates who have already decided to run rather than recruiting challengers to take on incumbents, and that it studies races carefully before jumping into primaries to ensure it is behind candidates who have a shot at winning.
“People ask about Lindsey Graham and Lamar Alexander and Mitch McConnell,” he said, naming three incumbent Republican senators who are up for re-election in 2014 and are viewed as ideologically wobbly by some conservatives. “We’re risk takers. But there are a lot of dynamics that have to be in place for us to engage in a race like that.”
“We don’t just do it because we like to make people miserable,” he said. “We do it because we think there’s a good chance of getting a champion of economic freedom in that seat.”
The Club for Growth’s supporters said the group helps the conservative cause even when it does not put its considerable financial clout behind a candidate, because the mere threat of a primary challenge keeps some Republicans from drifting into the political center. They said the group’s advocacy of moving more aggressively to balance the budget in 10 years was one reason that Representative Paul D. Ryan offered a plan this year to do just that. Mr. McConnell, leery of the potential for a Tea Party-inspired primary challenge against him, has hired the campaign manager employed in 2010 by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, a Tea Party favorite.
For now, the Club for Growth is looking for smaller opportunities, chiefly among incumbent House members who are in safe Republican districts but have voting records that the group deems insufficiently conservative on the issues it cares most about-- primarily, matters of taxes and spending.
In Mr. Kinzinger’s case, Club for Growth gave him a 56 percent rating on its voting scorecard in a district that Mr. Romney carried with 53 percent of the vote-- the kind of district that Democrats would need to put in play if they are to have a chance of winning back control of the House.
“We’re not concerned with an out-of-touch D.C.-based PAC that, time after time, unsuccessfully attempts to force their Washington agenda on Illinois families and businesses,” said Brook Hougesen, Mr. Kinzinger’s spokeswoman.
Other Republican incumbents Chocola would like to take down besides Kinzinger are a motley crew of mostly backbenchers who do exactly what they're told by Boehner and Cantor-- Aaron Schock (R-IL), Mike Simpson (R-ID), Frank Lucas (R-OK), Steve Palazzo (R-MS), Rick Crawford (R-AR), Martha Roby (R-AL), Larry Bucshon (R-IN), and Renee Ellmers (R-NC). Rove would love to let Chocola play in the House and just concentrate on the Senate, where the GOP has a good chance to win a majority in 2014. His new PAC, the Conservative Victory Project, is meant to keep Club for Growth-type crackpots away from the Republican nominations-- people like Iowa Congressman Steve King. Big Chocola is a big King booster... or course.
He was referring to a bunch of Republican candidates whose campaigns imploded-- handing Senate seats to Democrats even in red states like Missouri and Indiana. But in the post-Citizens United, free-for-all world of superPACs, Rove's group already has its competitors-- anti-establishment groups like Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks.
Chris Chocola, who runs the Club for Growth, a group that backs conservative candidates in Republican Senate primaries, says he sees Rove's effort as an inside-the-Beltway power grab.
"They think they can pick the candidate," he says. "And you can't pick a candidate; you can support a candidate. Those darn pesky voters are the ones that actually get to pick the candidate."
Chocola says Rove's group has identified the wrong problem. He points to a series of unsuccessful moderate candidates in states like Virginia, Wisconsin, Montana and North Dakota-- "all establishment candidates, all backed and picked by, you know, groups that would be aligned with Rove's new group," he says, "and they all lost. So that's really the question that we should be asking."
Chocola and the Club for Growth have started a project of their own, PrimaryMyCongressman.com, aimed at moderate Republicans in the House. Its website singles out Republicans from districts that were easily carried by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney but who receive low scores from the club for their votes in favor of the auto bailout or the fiscal cliff deal.
"They represent very conservative districts that would support a champion of economic freedom, but they don't choose to vote that way," Chocola says. "All of these districts would elect someone more conservative than the incumbent currently serving."
PrimaryMyCongressman.com has won applause from the conservative grass roots, including Erick Erickson of the Red State blog.
"I think it's probably one of the greatest ideas ever," he says. "Basically the message from Club for Growth ... is that people in their own districts have a good idea of who they should run ... and they don't like this top-down approach from Washington, D.C."
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